Airbnb fire protection

Playing With Fire: Tenants Moonlighting on Airbnb Place Rent Rolls at Fire Risk

Whether you’ve used one on your travels, or you simply live near one, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Airbnb. Founded less than ten years ago, the online short-term accommodation hub is now a global phenomenon.

Over the past two years, I’ve stayed in three Airbnbs in which the hosts were tenants, not owner-occupiers. Each time, when I pointed out the lack of smoke alarms, they seemed confused or reluctant to discuss the issue. Smoke alarms are considered a fixture on tenancy agreements, and installation is the landlord’s responsibility.

Airbnb: High on Convenience, Low on Fire Safety Standards

It’s no overstatement to say Airbnb has revolutionised accommodation. It’s also important to note that every new technology is met with scepticism. We each have different views on the pros and cons of Airbnb and other disruptive business models. But one thing we can all agree on is the need for safety standards to be maintained. This is vital, whether the residents are owner-occupiers, renters or holidaymakers. While celebrating the technological progress and innovation of companies like Airbnb, we should never lose sight of our longstanding community safety standards.

Airbnb and smoke alarm legislation

Who is responsible for fire safety with sites like Airbnb?

Smoke alarms and fire safety are an afterthought to many Australians. This may seem like a strange thing for a fire safety specialist to say, but I understand the reasons. It’s difficult and unpleasant to contemplate distressing scenarios. Like surf lifesavers and ER doctors, we hope we never need a smoke alarm.

Nevertheless, it’s best to confront challenges, rather than avoid them. Fires are so perilous to life and property that preventative measures are critical. My experience has shown me just how easy it is to overlook basic safety, especially when dealing with temporary or casual accommodation. Two of my Airbnb hosts admitted they were moonlighting, and had not sought permission from the landlord or agent.

Picture this. A guest prepares for bed in an Airbnb room where no smoke alarm is present. They close the door and innocently plug in their mobile device to charge. While sleeping, an electrical fault causes the device to ignite. Flames quickly spread to the curtains or sheets. Now the traveller is in mortal danger.

But who is responsible? The answer, right now, is unclear.

Regulation Can’t Keep Pace With Airbnb Growth

The growth rate of Airbnb and similar sites make it difficult for laws and regulations to keep up. In the inner suburbs of Ascot Vale, Maribyrnong and Footscray, I estimate there’s been a 20 percent rise in available Airbnb rooms over the past year. But the system offers no way to distinguish between tenants and owner-occupier hosts.

I’m not suggesting those who buy or sell accommodation on Airbnb are being deliberately malevolent, but in the absence of clear laws and guidelines, there exists a grey area that leaves occupants and guests vulnerable. At its core, this is a question of accountability.

Across Victoria, and Australia in general, there’s a battle between those who seek to maintain the status quo when it comes to residential property and tenant regulations, and those who seek legislative change due to new dynamics.

The contrasting views are well illustrated by recent State Government submissions on tenancy legislation:

“Home sharing acts as an economic lifeline for thousands of Victorians. When undertaken in a responsible way, it brings economic benefits to households, small businesses, and local communities. A landlord should not be able to deny a tenant the right to share their home whilst the tenant is present.”

Brent Thomas, Head of Public Policy, Airbnb ANZ

“In any arrangement that involves a financial transaction, such as Airbnb, Tenants should not be able to challenge a Landlord’s refusal to part with possession, because Landlords have a substantial financial asset at stake and little control over the individuals who may be occupying the premises.”

Real Estate Institute of Victoria

I don’t wish to lambast groups or decry the industry as a whole, but rather illustrate that the campaign to maintain safety is often complex and dynamic, with many diverse opinions. It doesn’t matter who comes to the table when discussing safety, as long as safety is maintained for the benefit of all.

Nobody wishes to discourage innovation. We have a great tradition in this country of being creative, adaptable, and welcoming of new ideas and opportunities. I personally enjoy Airbnb. I believe it offers a high quality, homely and affordable alternative to traditional accommodation. For me, there’s no disputing the promise and potential offered by Airbnb and similar businesses. But this can’t come at the expense of safety.

The 2018 Residential Tenancies Act Update

 Victoria is currently revisiting its Residential Tenancies Act. The RTA has been static for two decades, but an updated version is due for release next year. There is hope that this update will provide clarity on these issues, helping to address the dangers posed to occupants of unsafe homes each night.

The outcome of this update will be of great interest to the industry, and will impact all Victorians. But the wheels of government turn slowly, and if this document fails to address Airbnb and similar matters, then further change is unlikely for many years.

Can We Embrace Airbnb While Ensuring Consumer Safety?

The continued growth and evolution of Airbnb should be watched with interest. Their business model offers innovations that hold much promise. It’s incumbent upon those in an industry facing disruption to champion progress, rather than resist change. But we must do so while ensuring beneficial frameworks are maintained.

And thinking more broadly about the fire services sector, there is a need for a coalition of stakeholders to work effectively to deliver solutions agreeable to all. Industry authorities and peak bodies must reach out to members who work at the coalface and who can speak to the issues of smoke alarms and liveability. The benefits of smoke alarms can be greatly diminished if new regulations make them impossible to live with.

When lives are at stake, a dialogue is not optional – it’s mandatory. We have a strong Australian tradition of building real homes, not just houses. Buildings that transcend bricks and tiles. Dwellings in which families feel safe and secure. Our ability to deliver in this area depends not only on individual efforts but also on broad community participation.

That’s why maintaining a robust approach to education and fire safety is so important. If handled properly, the rise of Airbnb, accompanied by our safety standards, should be something to celebrate. In our desire for growth and progress, we must take care not to forget what makes life in Australia so special – whether you’re staying here for a night or for a lifetime.


Jamie Bowman
The Smoke Alarm Guy



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